Peggy Arroyo, Vice President of Programs at The Fortune Society

A Fortunate 19 Years of Service

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

We once had a young man in our Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) program whose father was serving time for drug involvement. The son’s grandmother was raising him and she urged him to go visit his father, but he refused. I encouraged the young man to visit him, even if he only went to pour out all the anger and resentment he felt— just meeting his father was all that mattered. The young man ended up not only visiting his father, but thanking me afterwards, and saying, “because of you I now have a relationship with my father.”

In fact, when his father was released, the son brought him to The Fortune Society to introduce him to our services in the hopes of finding him a job. Even after seven or eight years, one of them will occasionally check in to let me know how they are doing. The ability to form nurturing family relationships, combined with helpful community resources, allows people returning home from prison to flourish into successful individuals.

Fortune first hired me in 1997 as the Director of DAMAS, a gender-specific ATI program for women. Before this, I had worked for another agency providing pre–release services for incarcerated mothers. At Fortune, I would now be working to prevent incarceration.

Research has shown that one of the most important ingredients to prevent recidivism is family reunification. Families often provide the moral support needed to change lives. In light of this, we initiated the Family Services unit at Fortune. To this day, Family Services continues to connect our participants with their loved ones by teaching parenting and interpersonal skills and providing them with the tools to grow to be positive role models for their children.

Children need the nurturing and support of both parents if they are to lead safe and successful lives. Family bonds provide the love and guidance needed for children to avoid crime themselves. Unfortunately, because incarceration can separate families for long periods of time, many children with criminal justice involved parents lack this crucial support.

The fathers program at Fortune addressed this very issue. Before coming to Fortune, I had worked with single parents, many of whom were previously incarcerated and separated from their children. At Fortune, I also saw that most of the young adults we worked with in our ATI program were also young fathers who came from families where their fathers were incarcerated. These young adults were also involved with the criminal justice system that could lead to their incarceration—leaving their children without the love, support, and guidance of a positive male role model—repeating their own history. Thus, when we had the chance to obtain funding for a fathers program at Fortune, I was eager to do so.

However, starting this program meant that we would be working with dads who owed child support fees to the State of New York, and some felt that participation in this program would be the equivalent of “turning them in” to the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). To address this, we pulled together a group of fathers and asked for their insight on this issue. An outcome from these focus groups was the hiring of an attorney to represent fathers in child support, visitation, and custody cases.

Through their participation in focus groups, these fathers started our first fathers program, which we called “The Right Step.” Today, participants in Family Services continue to learn about the skills and values they need as parents. They also have opportunities to meet others who are overcoming similar obstacles at family gatherings that unite fathers with their children. Along with our partners, Fortune has truly been influential in encouraging the OCSE to understand that the fathers we work with are not “deadbeat dads,” but are fathers who are struggling to make a successful re-entry. OCSE has since instituted numerous father-friendly programs that support fathers’ engagement with their children.

Looking back, what is impressive about Fortune is how it develops organically. Just as we did when organizing The Right Step, Fortune grows by simply listening to its clients express their needs and responding with solutions and new programs. For instance, I remember a management meeting when housing was identified as an overwhelming issue for our clients. A year later, JoAnne Page, our Chief Executive Officer, took steps to address this issue by purchasing land and building the Fortune Academy and Castle Gardens in West Harlem.

Opening up Castle Gardens in 2010 was magnificent to watch and beyond anything we expected. It immediately became a safe haven for people coming home from prison and community members. It was a place where people could start taking the steps necessary to rebuild their lives.

It is because of Fortune’s goal to help people rebuild their lives that my career at Fortune has been so fulfilling. I’ve been fortunate to have a job that not only gave me meaningful responsibilities but allowed me to carry them out alongside a welcoming and warmhearted staff with a passion for helping others. We all understand that working at Fortune is more than just a job— we work here out of the genuine desire to support, nurture, and assist in rebuilding lives and welcoming participants home.

For nineteen years, I walked into Fortune everyday knowing I had the opportunity to have a positive impact on another individual and that something magical could happen. While Fortune has changed the lives of many clients during my time here, it has also changed my own. I am honored to say that Fortune made me realize and appreciate all the blessings I’ve had in life, and it taught me to always be thankful, resourceful, and humble.

This article was featured in our latest issue of the Fortune News.

Categories: Community, Featured

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